Sir Bob Phillis: Media executive whose easy manner concealed a quick brain and a hard head for business

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The Independent Online

Media executives come in two distinct styles. Some, such as Michael Grade, Greg Dyke, Richard Branson, are regularly in the news, garnering almost as much publicity for themselves as do the performers on their channels. Sir Bob Phillis was a prime example of the other sort, who contribute greatly while largely avoiding the limelight. By the time of his death Phillis he had wielded a decisive influence on both the BBC and commercial television and, most recently, The Guardian newspaper. It was his misfortune that in so many of his senior jobs he was forced to divert his impressive energies towards damage limitation, as traditional companies struggled to find survival strategies in a rapidly changing media landscape.

Robert Weston Phillis was born in Croydon shortly after the Second World War and attended John Ruskin Grammar School, leaving at 15 to become an apprentice printer. After four years he decided to try for a university place, so he studied for A-levels and entered Nottingham University, graduating in industrial economics in 1968. While still a student he married Jean Derham, with whom he had three sons.

His first job after university was with Thomson Regional newspapers, from where he moved quite quickly to Robert Maxwell's British Printing Corporation. In 1971 he was appointed lecturer in industrial relations at Edinburgh University, but after four years he was lured back from the theoretical to the practical when Maxwell offered him the job of personnel director at Sun Printers in Watford, soon promoting him to managing director. His undemonstrative manner and air of quiet competence proved an effective foil to Maxwell's bombast.

It was from here that he made his switch from printing to publishing. Sun had the contract to print TV Times, the official programme guide to independent television published by Independent Television Publications (ITP), then jointly owned by the ITV companies. In 1979 Phillis was invited to become ITP's managing director. He quickly gained a reputation within ITV as a calm, decisive executive whose easy manner concealed a quick brain and a hard head for business. These qualities were badly needed at one of the franchises in particular: Central TV, which broadcast to the Midlands but had been criticised for playing down its regional identity.

Central was essentially ATV – the original franchise holder created by Lew Grade – in a new guise, with some shares now held by local enterprises. It was created following difficult negotiations with the Independent Broadcasting Authority over the renewal of its contract. The IBA insisted that the new company should have a managing director with no links to the old ATV, and the choice fell on Phillis.

Before the arrival of multi-channel TV, ATV's revenue base had been strong, but its costs were high because it maintained the large Elstree Studios – a long-established part of the Grade empire – in Hertfordshire, outside the region. Phillis sold off Elstree and moved much original production to a more modest facility in Nottingham. Among the programmes he championed during his six years at Central was the satirical puppet show Spitting Image.

In 1987 he was recruited by the tempestuous Michael Green to be group managing director of Carlton Communications, which had just acquired a minority stake in Central and had ambitions to run a franchise of its own. Phillis wrote the company's successful bid to take over the London region from Thames in 1992, but before the contract was won he was on the move again, this time to become chief executive of Independent Television News.

Until then ITN had, like ITP, been jointly owned by the ITV companies and treated as a cost rather than a profit centre. But under the 1990 Broadcasting Act it was forced to admit outside investors and to compete with other providers for the news contracts for ITV and Channel 4. Phillis guided the company deftly through that difficult time by substantially reducing costs, shedding staff and introducing accountants on news desks.

It was this that attracted the attention of John Birt when he became director-general of the BBC in 1992. He was seeking a similar revolution there, and the following year he appointed Phillis to be his deputy, with special responsibilities for the World Service and for BBC Enterprises, the Corporation's commercial arm.

The two men did not form a happy partnership. In 1996 Phillis came close to resigning when he was not properly consulted before Birt announced controversial plans to restructure the Corporation and, in particular, to slim down the World Service. But he stayed on, and the following year was responsible for negotiating a deal with Flextech that finally gave the BBC a lucrative foothold in the growing multi-channel market.

That proved to be his swansong at the BBC, for in 1997 he was made chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, then suffering severely from the overall decline in newspaper circulations and the reported harmful rivalry between The Guardian and The Observer, the venerable Sunday paper acquired by the group in 1993.

He held the post until he was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. His two biggest successes in it were the launch of GMG radio and the buy-out of the group's partners in the profitable Trader Media Group (since sold), specialising in car sales publications. The jury is out on two more decisions made during his tenure: the investment of millions in The Guardian's online operation, which chalks up huge losses; and the switch to the Berliner format, an uneasy hybrid between broadsheet and tabloid.

Phillis held many honorific posts in media bodies such as the Royal Television Society, and was knighted in 2004. That was also the year he was asked to chair a review of government communications, which concluded that there had been a "three-way breakdown in trust between government and politicians, the media and the general public".

Many of the commission's proposals – notably the abolition of off-the-record briefings to political journalists – were ignored. But one positive result was the creation of a new post of permanent head of government communications, held by a civil servant rather than a political appointee.

Tributes have laid stress on Sir Bob's modesty and decency – qualities he certainly possessed; but he did, too, allow himself the odd touch of flamboyance. When he ran TV Times, for instance, his company car was a Jaguar with the registration TVT 1. And he was a keen London clubman, with memberships of the Garrick, the Reform and the Groucho.

Sports also played a significant part in his off-duty life. He enjoyed skiing and golf and, as a board member of the Lawn Tennis Association, was a regular at Wimbledon.

Michael Leapman

Robert Weston Phillis, newspaper and television executive: born Croydon 3 December 1945; Kt 2004; married 1966 Jane Derham (three sons); died London 22 December 2009.